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Whitewater: When Scandal Seems as Stylized as Kabuki : Politics: Washington has shifted into damage-control high gear. But can anyone identify what is wrong? Or is this smoking gun just smoke?

January 16, 1994|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — Act One of the Whitewater scandal ended last week on a disorderly note. President Bill Clinton, in the midst of his Eastern European trip, suddenly decided to accept political reality and ask the attorney general to appoint a special counsel to conduct an inquiry. At the same time, in an attempt to escalate hostilities, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole charged that Congress' regular Democratic leadership could not be trusted to probe the mess and called for the establishment of special Senate and House committees. But the President's announcement stepped all over Dole's lines. Congressional Democrats, gratefully seizing on the President's surrender, stoutly resisted the Republican call for Iran-Contra-style hearings.

So Clinton did a prudent thing. But from a scientific point of view, his announcement was too bad, because the Washington community was on the verge of acting out the following thought experiment: If in today's Andy Warhol world you can now be famous for being famous, can you also be guilty of being thought guilty? How far can the scandal process go before someone finally has to say just what the accused official is guilty of?

Our political scandals have now become as stylized as Kabuki. There is the character of the High Official, brought low by long-ago sins. The Opposition Leader, pressing the scandal forward as far and fast as possible. The Inquiring Journalist, nobly enraged by lack of access to documents. The smooth Damage Controller. The Shady Character from the High Official's past.

Have we gotten so good that we no longer need any substantive information to keep the drama going? The Whitewater dance was on the verge of supplying some answers to this question.

As of a month ago, what we generally knew about Whitewater was that: (a) the First Couple had some savings-and-loan connections that could signify either foul crimes or just garden-variety Southern friends-and-neighbors politics; (b) a lot of papers were missing, and (c) a close Clinton aide in the White House had committed a surprising suicide several months before.

This was not a whole lot--and not much more of a fundamental nature has emerged since then. Instead, the current scandal burst upon us for reasons that were formal and technical.

First, in late December it became public that after Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s death, papers in his office concerning the Clintons' personal business affairs had not been given to investigators. Thus, the charge of cover-up--which, in turn, was taken to imply that there must be something to hide.

Next, the media community had just been jolted by the trooper scandal, in which Arkansas police gave details of the President's past sexual exploits during his days as governor.

Since the late 1980s, opinion-makers had grown increasingly queasy about their role in spreading such tales. And if there was any sex scandal to upset the faint of stomach, it was the trooper stories: They described highly private behavior, most already known in outline to the electorate that voted Clinton into the presidency in 1992.

By contrast, over there, shimmering on the horizon, was the aptly named Whitewater scandal: a nice, clean scandal, fit for prime-time and family newspapers. By pursuing Whitewater, you could avert your eyes from the troopers' tales, yet show you were not a Clinton patsy. Thus, the burst of media enthusiasm for James B. McDougal and his Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan was, in part, a great, windy sigh of relief.

So here we were, in the Washington political audience, with our newly intensified interest in--well, we still didn't know exactly what. But the Clintons, bless them, kept us going with their not-atypical evasiveness and their inexplicable insistence that Whitewater fell inside some sacrosanct "zone of privacy" where the press had no right to tread. This claim had approximately the same effect as stamping a document "Top Secret Unbelievably Classified One Eye Only." Media enthusiasm was sustained.

If everyone had continued to play his or her role as written, the next steps might have gone like this: Dole calls for select committee to investigate Whitewater. Committee appointed. Editorial opinion massively in favor of independent investigation. Congress quickly reauthorizes independent counsel. Independent counsel appointed. Independent counsel in clash with committee over issues of subpoenas, witness immunity. Reporter from Arkansas Stiletto finds witness alleging he saw Mrs. C. receiving cash in brown paper bags. Witness testifies. Insurance, pharmaceutical industries attack First Lady as profiteer. Whitewater documents turn up in abandoned car in Little Rock parking lot.

OK, this is a somewhat fanciful version of the future--but not by much. Most Americans still do not care much about Whitewater, any more than they cared about those shocked Arkansas troopers. Yet, among the chattering classes, the Clintons are profoundly vulnerable.

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